Doom is exactly the game Doom would always have been if John Carmack could open a portal through Hell and send a GTX970 back to 1993. It’s a fast, loud, gory, stupid, beautiful, terrifying shooter that’s often as exciting for what it omits as it is for what it includes.
It’s a return to the franchise’s bombastic roots, reversing Doom 3’s oft-maligned shift towards slower-paced survival horror. Gone are the creepy corridors, the tip-toeing past flickering lights, the claustrophobic isolation. The closest you come to tip-toeing anywhere is the balletic grace of a perfectly executed double-jump glory-kill. You never worry there might be something in here with you. You know there’s something in here with you.
Everything in Doom is there to drive you onward into combat. Hell, even the combat drives you into combat, with the glory-kill and chainsaw mechanics forcing you to stay in the thick of things. Doom’s gun-play is as slick as shit pie. The enemies are smart, fast and brutal - I defy you not to instinctively push back in your chair the first time a Pinky thunders headlong at you down a corridor. And the arsenal of chunky weapons, complete with your choice of customizations and upgrades, make every dead demon a joy. Dat shotgun.
You know this already, of course. It’s over a year since Doom’s release, and I’m way behind the times. But I don’t play a ton of first person shooters, precisely because they’re not like this. Call Of Duty 9: Blops Of Bang 3 is for you kids, not an old man like me. I still play through the original Doom at least once a year because it’s the pinnacle of game design and I can’t believe how smooth it runs on my 486DX.
What I’m going to talk about here is what I see as the only significant fault with Nu Doom. It has a couple of aspects to it, but the overall effect is one of monotony. I don’t mean monotony to imply boredom. You never have time to be bored in Doom because you’re never more than a few seconds from a fight, and the fights are so utterly glorious. I mean it in the more musical sense of a lack of pitch variation, caused by a combination of encounter scaling and environmental invariance.
Your first gunfights are against shambling possessed humans and a few imps, Hell’s basic foot soldiers. These are challenging fights - the imps in particular are cunning and fast, able to climb and jump around the environment in unpredictable ways. As the imps increase in numbers you’re glad to find a shotgun to complement your pistol. The increase in firepower, though limited in ammunition, turns the tide in your favour.
The next level introduces a more heavily-armed breed of possessed soldiers, and the Hell Knight, a fearsome hulk who will smash your head. Maybe he thinks you looked at his wife funny. Luckily you’ve just been granted the first upgrades to your weapons and armour so you just about scrape through your early encounters with these new horrors.
Onwards, deeper into the UAC’s Mars facility. Here’s a magic rune and a machine gun. Brilliant, that’s what you’ll need to defeat the evil Revenant that you’ve just met for the first time.
Oh no, a Cacodemon, you hate these guys. Glad you found this plasma rifle.
Mancubus. Rocket launcher.
You see the pattern? Yes, unfortunately so did I, within the first three levels. It’s a pattern that essentially continues with little variance until your complement of weapons is complete and all the standard (i.e. non-boss) enemies have been revealed. In absolute terms, battles continually increase in complexity and difficulty, but actually feel somewhat flat because they rarely vary in relative terms with respect to your current power state.
The second aspect to this monotonous progression is a lack of variability in the spaces in which fights occur.
The game is set in two locations: the Union Aerospace Corporation’s base on Mars, and in Hell itself. The former is an industrial facility dominated by large open areas - cargo bays, foundries, research labs and so on - connected by many corridors and walkways. Almost all the significant battles you encounter on Mars take place in one of the large spaces. You’ll typically enter such an area and perform an action such as flicking a switch, whereupon all the exits - including the way you entered - are locked down and demons begin to materialise out of thin air. A big firefight ensues, and once the demonic presence has been eliminated a computerised voice will literally announce “demonic presence eliminated” and the exit will open.
These spaces are, I should add, designed explicitly to extract every ounce of excitement from combat encounters, and they work very well. They almost always feature multiple vertical levels, with high platforms accessible by jumping and climbing and sub-levels of service hatches and tunnels below ground. Some demons can fly, and others, notably imps, are very effective in using this verticality by climbing and jumping. As a result the fights often become truly three-dimensional, with multiple routes through the spaces and angles of attack.
But the arenas do become fairly predictable. They’re usually either rectangular and symmetric, or circular. They’re all similar in size, with similar bottlenecks and open spaces.
So what of Hell? You would think that, in contrast to the rigid industrial compositions of mankind’s invention, the realms of pure chaos would offer a much more unpredictable and abstract combat space. Here you’d be able to run riot with your level designs. Alas not. There are certainly some interesting connective areas, balancing precariously over infinite chasms, on platforms suspended from the bones of long-dead titanic demons. But the majority of combat occurs, once again, in roughly symmetric multi-level arenas about the size of your average industrial facility.
It’s telling that, as I write this, I’m struggling to specifically remember more than a handful of Doom’s combat arenas without them blending into one another. And I played it just last night.
This environmental predictability is something that differs significantly from the original Doom, and where the new model feels significantly lacking. Nu Doom’s environments feel like static spaces in which events occur. Original Doom’s environments were events in themselves.
Go back and play one of the original Doom’s classic and instantly recognisable maps, E2M2, “Containment Area,” designed by Tom Hall and Sandy Petersen. (Or watch this discussion, but I urge you to play it). This was a sprawling affair filled with all manner of demons, but it was the environmental design that was most striking. Mazes of crates with demons around every corner, corridors of crushing ceilings, platforms rising out of industrial waste only as you step onto them, engine shafts hiding secret areas behind moving plungers, secrets within secrets (within secrets), monster closets, and even a trick exit. Combat encounters occur everywhere, in open areas, tight spaces, in darkness… this one level may contain more environmental variability than the whole of Nu Doom, and yet it’s navigable and it makes sense, it isn’t a mess.
Now I’m not saying all this to be especially critical of Doom’s 2016 incarnation. Doom is the best action game I’ve played in a long while. It does what it sets out to do with a swaggering pomp that can take this kind of criticism and shove an arm up it. It couldn’t really do what it does any better. But it could do more.
Let’s return to the question of encounter scaling, where larger enemies appear in lock-step with your ever-increasing firepower. Isn’t this just obvious? Why would you have enemies appear that are too hard to kill?
I’ll answer that by giving you an example: a memorable sequence from Half-Life 2, specifically the ending of Episode 1, called “Exit 17.” You’re in a station and trying to escape the city on a train, but the train is guarded by a Strider, a giant robot tripod thing with a huge cannon on its face. If it sees your face, it’ll shoot it clean off. The level is roughly a horseshoe shape with multiple vertical levels, and the Strider patrolling its centre. You don’t initially have any realistic means of defeating the Strider, so the best you can do for now is to traverse the edges of the level, fighting Combine soldiers, avoiding exploding barrels (yes, I know), and never exposing yourself to its heavy weaponry.
The presence of that Strider adds a whole extra dimension to what would otherwise be a straightforward encounter. Not only must you fight effectively, you also have to choose where to fight, hoping not to get pinned down in a crossfire. By the time you reach the end of the level you really hate that Strider, so seeing a rocket launcher waiting for you feels that much sweeter. Finally you can take that son of a bitch down, and you really relish exacting your revenge.
Half-Life 2 has a similar level where you’re chased by a helicopter that you have no way to defeat. It’s a constant hovering menace through about 20 minutes of tense gameplay. Stand the wrong side of a wall, it’ll kill you. Stand in front of a window, it’ll kill you. Lose your spatial awareness in any way, it’ll kill you. Everything about the environmental design of that level is driven by the constant need to escape the helicopter. However, I chose the Strider example because Striders aren’t boss-fights. Sure they’re big baddies, but they’re not unique. The uniqueness of the encounter is down to the design of the space in which it occurs.
This never occurs in Doom 2016. Perhaps Doom’s closest match for Half-Life 2’s Strider is a Baron Of Hell, a furious hulking beast that’s fast enough to keep you in its sights and has vicious attacks at close and long range. Barons appear only rarely, but are almost guaranteed to be the biggest threat in the room when they do. But every Baron fight is essentially the same: they plonk down in the middle of a large locked room and you shoot them with guns (or chainsaw their legs off just for shits and giggles).
Contrast Half-Life 2’s Strider or helicopter battles with the Necropolis level and Hell Guard boss fight in Doom. In this sequence you’ve been sent back to Hell to retrieve the Crucible, a key which can be used to close the portal between Hell and Mars. This item is being held by three Hell Guards, rock-golem creatures controlled from within by a demonic worm. Whatever. They’re pretty nasty. The Necropolis itself is a linear level containing perhaps three or four set-piece battles involving some of the harder denizens of Hell’s wastes, including numerous Mancubi, Cacodemons and Barons of Hell. Of course, by this point you are fully tooled up and ready for a ruckus. At the level’s conclusion you walk through an archway, flip a switch, and are transported instantly to an empty circular arena where the Hell Guards appear without prelude or fanfare.
Boss fight, Crucible, boom. Next level. It’s all very matter-of-fact.
The battles earlier in the level are great of course: leaping and shooting and shoot-leaping and glory-killing and BFG-ing. But by this point you’ve chainsawed a Baron Of Hell’s leg off before. The Hell Guard boss design is cool too, there’s no doubt about it, especially when two of them take you on at once. But I wish more could be done with it than plonking you in a boxing ring together and shouting “Gladiator… ready.”
Here’s how I’d approach concluding this level:
First, don’t have this abrupt jump to the Crucible at the end. Have the Crucible visible in the distance for most of the time throughout the level. Make sure the player has that goal in mind. Have it embedded in the forehead of a giant skull that weeps blood over a pitch-black altar by the bucketfull. Surround it with imps, worshipping at twisted sculptures made of still-living bones. Make it important. Foreshadow it. Make sure it’s clear what it is and where you’re going.
That whole hellish altar thing is on an island of cursed iron floating in a lake of lava. Three wide but uneven rocky paths approach the altar, converging at that focal point. They fan out with about forty-five degrees between them, each one with a narrow causeway leading over the lava onto the island where the Crucible is held.
Towards the climax of the level, your running battle with the various demonic denizens of the Necropolis leads you down to the start of the central path. The path itself is strewn with jagged rocks and shards of giant bones, and guarded all the way by more demons. Your goal, the Crucible, is dead ahead of you now, in sight.
But as soon as you step onto the path a fireball shoots past you, missing you by mere inches. You look to your right to see a towering stone golem on the adjacent path. It’s a Hell Guard, keeper of the Crucible. Another fireball, and to your left appears its twin.
You run towards your goal. Deadly fireballs rain down on you from each side, and you’re forced to dash between the cover of boulders and steaming fissures cut into the rock to avoid the Hell Guards’ deadly barrage. You leap beneath an arch of rock just as a fireball shatters it, raining red hot shards all around you. Your shotgun rips apart any demon foolhardy enough to stand in your way, but more follow, coming out of the cracks, climbing up from crevasses.
Soon you come to the end of what little cover is available. Behind you, an army of demons is gathering. Battered and bloodied, you crouch between the petrified ribs of some accursed ancient giant. You hear the Hell Guards call to the worshipers at the altar in some guttural black tongue, commanding them to rise up and face you. They howl and screech.
Breaking cover, you bring your BFG-9000 to bear on the wailing masses. You unleash a blinding bolt of plasma. The congregation erupts in a haze of boiling blood which rains down on you, mixing with your own.
Sprinting to the causeway now, crossing the lava lake, you take your only chance to claim the Crucible. You glance to the side, only to see the Hell Guards keeping pace, hurdling over rocks, smashing through their lesser demonic kin, knocking them into the fiery pit below. They're overtaking you. You’re too late. They cross onto the island with a bound, and as they land the causeway begins to buckle and collapse beneath you. With what strength remains in your legs you leap across the widening chasm, gripping onto the far side by your fingertips and hauling yourself up to face your most deadly foe.
Boss fight, Crucible, boom. Next level.
I could go on and speculate about why Doom is the way it is. I could talk about how creativity is driven by constraints. I could mull over how the original Doom’s technological restrictions led designers like John Romero, Sandy Petersen and Tom Hall into certain brilliant choices. Was the environmental invariance in modern Doom a conscious choice on the part of its designers? Or was it driven by limitations in the idTech6 engine or design tools? I don’t have sufficient knowledge or access to answer these questions.
Frankly I don’t need to. I’m more than happy to accept Doom for what it is: a brilliant and unapologetic game built around a core of fluid movement, satisfying guns, and terrifying monsters. Its design, despite my nitpicking, is masterful. And while it’s unlikely to be as influential as in its seminal original form, I can’t recommend Doom 2016 highly enough. Go kill some monsters.